Seismic Shifts Shaping the Landscape

By Molly Penn

As part of our work, we often speak to thought leaders around the country about what they see as seismic shifts that are shaping the landscape around nonprofit organizations. Among the shifts that thought leaders point us to are the following:

1. Technology

There is much talk of “disruption” in the global economy, and the nonprofit world, less resourced than the for-profit world, is also feeling this disruption. Nonprofits and funders alike are looking at how to harness the power of technology (and not be disrupted by it) to get better at achieving their missions. Some examples we’ve seen in different nonprofit fields:

  • There are some early successes in the area of predictive analytics for human service work.

  • Cultural organizations are getting better at using and mining audience data to hone their marketing and attract more diverse audiences.

  • Food pantries and other poverty organizations are using iPads to sign in customers and get them to generate data to track their status simultaneously.

  • There is interesting work being done to mine big data around issues of race and inclusion (not released publicly yet).

2. Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI)

At long last, society is calling on all of us to focus on DEI and its importance in the nonprofit world. The world is taking a stand on the importance of breaking down barriers to leadership by people of color in the nonprofit landscape. On the way to this goal, nonprofits are realizing the need to shift staffing, culture and implicit bias that is baked into their models. Some examples of this we’ve seen (and are working on with clients):

  • The Building Movement project study called Race to Lead highlighted the systemic barriers to people of color serving in leadership roles.

  • Organizations are looking at how to move themselves along the continuum on becoming an anti-racist multicultural organization.

  • Organizations are engaging in self-examination and change to ensure the structures around decision-making and power are inclusive of diverse voices.

There is a corresponding appetite among capacity builders to better understand how to help our clients address these issues, and what our role is in calling out inequities, so racial equity will be a focus of the upcoming Alliance for Nonprofit Management conference in October.

3. Membership

We’ve had a number of clients recently that rely on membership in their business model. In a world that is shifting its attention to inclusiveness, there is a growing sentiment that the old model of “membership” is inherently elitist and exclusive. Some organizations have begun experimenting with different approaches to this issue. We’ve read some studies on:

  • Pay what you can membership, a model that is growing in popularity as new studies show it can be as remunerative and more inclusive than traditional fee-based models.

  • Voluntary membership, which shifts the idea of membership as a fee for service to one of monetary contribution in recognition of value – a subtle but important distinction.

4. Decline of Trust in Institutionalization

Success used to equate with growth, development and institutionalization (both literally and figuratively) for nonprofits. There are several factors at play that are shifting this concept and contributing to a decline in value for institutions. Thought leaders have told us about some of the factors that evidence this shift:

The world around us is shifting and the nonprofit sector must be prepared to adapt.  In your strategic planning, are you building these and other external shifts into your process? Are you prepared to fundamentally challenge the way your organization has accomplished its mission in the past?

Molly Penn is the President of PENN Creative Strategy, a consulting firm that partners with foundation and nonprofit leaders to build a thriving, just and relevant cultural & social sector.

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